County Executive candidates Mike Hein and Terry Bernardo

Mike Hein and Terry Bernardo.

Mike Hein and Terry Bernardo.

Mike Hein, consummate politician

Spend an hour talking with Mike Hein and just try to find a chink in his political armor. After all, he’s the most successful county executive Ulster County has ever seen. He’s also the only one the county’s ever seen.

Hein’s been on the job for seven years, since the legislature adopted the county executive form of governance. He ran against Republican Len Bernardo in 2008 and swamped him. Three years later, he ran unopposed. This year, another Bernardo — Len’s wife Terry, a former legislature chairwoman — has volunteered for the task.

And that’s just to give you an outline of Hein’s electoral success. What contributed to that success — the obstacles overcome, the innovative programs installed, the kudos from other quarters, and the endorsements that he can and does very happily lay claim to.


Success like his is supposed to breed happy feet; when governor Andrew Cuomo was looking for a lieutenant governor, Hein’s was a prominent name. More recently, with congressman Chris Gibson on the cusp of leaving his congressional seat, presumably for greener and broader statewide pastures, Hein is almost everybody’s best guess for reclaiming the seat for the Democrats.

But success like this also breeds tactical silence. Try to pry a hint of a suggestion of a whiff of whether he’s planning to move on to congressional pastures and here’s what you get: a very wide smile, a small shrug and a quick dismissal of the question.

“I don’t speculate. I just don’t.”

Nor does he have to. Bernardo has called him out on whether he’ll pledge to serve the next four years should he win, and he’s given her the same smile and shrug. With a campaign war chest reported in July to be in excess of $280,000, versus Bernardo’s $28,000, he can well afford to ignore Bernardo’s demands.

“Political pledges are normally designed by slick politicians.”

The fact is, Mike Hein is about as bullet-proof a candidate — some would say as slick a candidate — as you’ll find running for any office in or near Ulster County this year. He’s a consummate politician who pays close attention to the details — the infrastructure, if you will — of a campaign. You’ll see him pressing the flesh at the county fair, cutting ribbons at well-rehearsed ceremonial openings, and posing with anyone with any clout who’s willing to endorse him.

And if kissing babies isn’t as politically acceptable as it once was, Hein recently found the modern-day equivalent when he accepted a big sloppy kiss from a dog at a ceremonial signing of a law creating an animal abuse registry. Then he sent a social-media valentine to the TV news crew who broadcast the smooching pooch.

Hein has a classic political backstory that’s almost Horatio Alger-ian. He grew up on a farm in the Town of Esopus, the kind of place that develops either a strong work ethic or a craving to escape the rigors of the hay barn and the early risings. Hein developed the former inclination.

Both his grandparents were immigrants, hailing from Germany on his father’s side and Italy on his mother’s. He was the first member of his family to graduate from college. And when he came home after graduation, he surveyed a political landscape populated only by Republicans and Conservatives. “I didn’t like most politicians,” he recalled. “They were mostly self-serving, backslapping good old boys.”

Instead, he pursued a career in the jewelry business, then banking, where he became manager of a local branch of Fleet Bank.

Hein, then a registered Republican, was brought into the public sector by long-time county Democratic treasurer Lew Kirschner and served as deputy county treasurer from 2003 to 2006.

The county by this time was suffering the effects of its nepotistic ways, he said. The financial sinkhole that was the county jail (39 percent tax levy increase, anyone?) was the most characteristic legacy of those days. And if nepotism — those good old boys again — was the illness affecting county taxpayers, Hein saw and continues to see himself as the cure.

Aided and abetted by the new county charter that gave him the power once enjoyed only by majority party chairmen, Hein calls his seven years in office a period during which he’s restructured government from being a “who you know” operation to a “what you know” kind of place.

It’s his “grand experiment,” and he loves pointing to evidence that it’s working.

Hein describes the employment landscape he inherited as being composed of between 70 and 80 percent middle-aged white men. These days, he said, 52 percent of county employees are women.

Early in his administration, he oversaw the privatization of a venerable county institution — the Golden Hill infirmary — a controversial effort that neighboring Orange County has been trying to accomplish for years, with plenty of political fatalities along the way.

That move alone should have poisoned his relationship to the county’s labor unions, but while the CSEA, the county’s largest labor union, refused to back his candidacy in 2011 and again this year, the CSEA also declined to endorse Bernardo. At the same time, Hein said, all the county’s labor force is under contract, including the CSEA. “Our negotiations CSEA took about 15 minutes. It was very successful.”

Other labor unions have endorsed him, along with all the county’s local law-enforcement unions, as well as the state’s Democratic senators.


Trail on the Ashokan shore

His other successes have included the purchase and conversion of the former Sophie Finn Elementary School to the SUNY Ulster satellite campus, development of a free smartphone application aimed at preventing suicide, and perhaps most prominently an agreement between the county and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to open 11.5 miles of hiking trails along the northern shore of the Ashokan Reservoir.

That agreement has triggered bitter criticism from supporters of the privately owned Catskill Mountain Railroad, which wants the county to support its rail line to the reservoir and from Terry Bernardo, who has made the issue of rail versus trail her main campaign issue. State assemblyman Kevin Cahill, a fellow Democrat who has crossed swords with Hein over the county’s assumption of Safety-Net payments from the towns, has also taken the railroad’s side in the dispute.


Hein, while favoring the rail-trail plan, says his is not an either-or approach. “Extremists” on both sides have captured the debate, he says. His plan, as he sees it, is a compromise that would allow rail development along two sections of the existing track but not a full-scale Kingston-to-Phoenicia rail line he says is favored by railroad proponents.

Oh, and by the way, county property taxes will decline by one percent in 2016.

All in all, Hein is only too happy to stand on a record he sees as offering the maximum good for the maximum number of people, whether they be hikers, homeowners, taxpayers or dog lovers. ++


There are 6 comments

  1. Ryan Lennox

    What a load of ___ this article was. I’m voting for Bernardo. Disgusting Biased article… my goodness..

    Save The Rails!

  2. Pete Baker

    When I first learn of Mr. Hein’s plans to reasign the future of the Historic Ulster & Delaware Corridor I became comcerned. My interested in local history was kindled by a group known as the SAUGERTIES FULTON STEAMBOAT FOUNDATION. It was a group that planned to build a second replica of Robert Fulton’s North River steamboat. Their plan was to compliment the Clearwater on environmental issues.That was back in 2005.

    With the lack of funding sources the dreams soon turned to disappointment and collapse of the SFSF. I however maintained my interest. I got a call from a fellow in Northport, NY. He asked if I could provide him with drawings of the North River. He wanted to build a “large” model. NY state learned of his plan and commissioned him to build the model for the Visitor’s Center at Clermont. I gave copies of undimentioned drawing and did some basic research for the modeler. Today there is a 7′ long (1/20 scale) model at the center. I designed and created a 1/12 scale model of the running gear of the North River with a team of volunteers. It too is a NYS Registered Museum exhibit located at Clermont.

    An off shoot of my research was a basic knowledge of the Hudson River steamboats and Thomas Cornell. He was the steamboat magnate who developed the railroads from the Hudson through the Catskills.

    Enter Mr. Hein… I posted a message on his FACEBOOK page and on that of the Friends of The Catskill Mountain Rail Trail, expressing my concern over the destruction of the U & D rails.My posts aksed why both of the rails and a trail couldn’t co-exist. My posts were immediately removed and i was blocked from both pages. I have since learned that that several others have suffered the same fate. I have several e-mails to Mr. Hein. over the past year. He has yet to repond to any of them.

    Am I being unreasonable in asking why replace the rails with a trail when through compromise bith features could co-exist? I think not.

    1. Mr. Mr.

      You aren’t being unreasonable BUT you are being unrealistic. CMRR has failed to complete any plans they’ve ever discussed. Failed to raise funds. Failed to restore trains. Failed to provide basic upkeep of those rails. The ONLY people to point blame at are themselves!!! Be real, please.

      1. Pete Baker

        I can’t speak to or for CMRR. It appears that you are parroting thruths and half-truths published by others. You’ll have to sit down and talk with them to get answers to questions that you may have. I am not a member. I speak as a history buff and the potential loss of the Rail system developed by Thomas Cornell & I believe his son in-law.It was developed to support the steamboat trade on the Hudson, both Tourist and freight. The U & D railroad carried passengers from thsteamboats to the various resorts in the Caskills. It also carried frieght to and from the communities along the corridor.

        Trains are returning as as a cummuting and light freight options. There is a future with Rails and a trail that compliments them. Whether it be CMRR or another entity. The potential is there.Their is more of a risk with a trail only as many communities through out the country are finding out. There appears to be a move by communties to rethink the benefits of rails with trails. A national trail group even mentions it.

        The rail and trail advocates shouldn’t be adversaries but instead should work together to devlop the U & D Corridor to its greatest potential.

  3. Love HVNY

    I think that CMRR has failed in its efforts to lead a rail plan, has failed in its obligations contractually, has failed to raise funds, failed to actually DO what it claims it wants to do and just politicized the hell out of the issue instead of OWNING THE FACTS. That said, Bernardo scammed you and me – the tax payers – out of real $$$ and did not live up to her and her husbands promises to create jobs in return for tax breaks. So, yes, it makes TOTAL sense that Bernardo and CMRR would be on the same side because they are the same kind of operators – take on the take, and not do the hard work you promised to do!!!

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